Either you are sorting it out, or you are full of it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Waiter, I’d like to Bury the List

One of the first things I learned how to say when I moved to China was 买单 (mÇŽidān), the word for “the bill” or “pay the bill” when you’re at a restaurant. I can remember sitting outside in a Beijing hutong in the summer of 2007, still struggling with the tonality of the Chinese language and barking “màidàn” to a horrified server. Over two years later, of all things in Chinese, I thought that this was one of the key phrases that I had mastered, intoning it and thinking it just like a Chinese person would, thinking “buy” (ä¹°, mÇŽi) and “list” (单, dān) to myself when I asked for the bill. To my surprise, there is still another twist.

I recently came across the word 埋单 (máidān), literally “bury the list”, which means the same thing as 买单 (mÇŽidān). The sound of these two phrases are so close that it is difficult to distinguish which one is being said unless you listen very closely and the person saying them is speaking clearly.  Yet there seems to be a world of difference in meaning if you consider what is being said.

What a strange idea! Paying at a restaurant as burying the proof of what is owed, laying to rest the obligation, ostensibly forever. Paying the bill appears to be a ritual associated with the kind of reverence one owes towards the dead, and true to the analogy, the Chinese are particular about paying the bill. Typically, one person treats everyone else, regardless of the occasion. The idea of everyone taking out money and laying it on the table while the bill is divided up is considered unsightly and barbaric. I’ve witnessed a number of waiters cringe as they watch a group of foreigners figure out the money after a banquet.

Perhaps this kind of solemnity explains the fact that 埋单 has a more expanded usage, meaning to take responsibility for something. Nciku gives the following example:


If the whole thing is bungled, you will be responsible.

Responsible indeed.

I’ve started asking to “bury the list” when I check out of restaurants now. No one seems to notice the difference.

posted by ferret at 4:38 pm  

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Stroll in Zhongshan Park

Spring is at the door here in Shanghai, and this past weekend proved to be a lovely one full of sunshine and mild temperatures. As a result, I decided to have lunch outside at Zhongshan Park, one of the biggest and most bustling parks in the city.

On a weekend like this, the air is full with the scolding of grandparents scuttling after their impish grandchildren, the stately, meandering wail of performers playing traditional Chinese music and the thump of recordings played in the far square where public dances are held. If the wind is up at all, there are always the kites. The central green is completely full of people of all ages angling for a spot to send their kite skyward, as families of three generations look on.

I was suddenly fascinated by the view of the kites in the sky. They seemed to encapsulate the excitement I felt walking around in the sudden good weather. My spirits were flying high, and so were they. As I stood near the edge of the green and looked at them, I heard the sound of a whistle trilling in short, loud bursts. It was a coming from a groundskeeper, walking through the crowds, waving his arms while blowing, trying to get them to move off the green. He had a helpless, yet determined look on his face. As if he knew that he wasn’t going to get anyone to move, but he had to keep trying. He didn’t know what else to do.

I noticed that there was a flimsy cord around the entire perimeter of the green, and several signs had been posted:



Time for growing grass

Please do not enter

The Chinese weren’t phased by the sign or the groundskeeper. He didn’t have any real authority; he just had a whistle. The spring was on its way, and their spirits were high like mine, high amongst the kites.

posted by ferret at 3:03 pm  

Monday, February 22, 2010

Parker Selfridge vs Carter J Burke

James Cameron’s newest blockbuster Avatar has elicited a number of comments concerning its plodding, conventional plot. The comparisons to a number of blockbuster movies is palpable. There’s the now famous, Pocahontas reworking. There’s also Dances with Wolves (Cameron himself has interesting words to say about this). Let’s not forget Ferngully, either.

But what about Cameron’s own film Aliens?

There are a number of comparisons that can be made, but the one that intrigues me the most is the one that can be made between the corporate lackeys in each feature:

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) in Avatar

Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser) in Aliens

Both characters don’t do well with the audience. They are meant to represent what would seem to be the undying greed of the corporate world, even in future scenarios where our technology had advanced deep into the realm of the imaginary. There is, however, a shocking difference between these two characters, which I would argue is representative of a change in the way corporate culture existed in the 80s and the way it exists today.

In Aliens, Carter J Burke acts purely out of a detached self-interest, out of greed in its most basic sense. As the representative of the corporation, he sees an opportunity to be rewarded handsomely by sacrificing the lives of the others on the ship and bringing an alien specimen back to Earth. He is, in a sense, a free agent, the epitome of the 80’s “Me culture”, seeking to use the corporate path as a means to personal aggrandizement.  The greediness he exudes is one of personal choice. We do not feel that he is impelled by anything to make his decision to sabotage the crew, other than his own desire.

Parker Selfridge, despite what the name would suggest, is not as selfish, or at least not knowingly so. Throughout the movie, Parker works to find ways to work around destroying the indigenous population. He doesn’t want to have to deal with the possible turmoil that such destruction could do to the image of the corporation (or its profits). Yet despite his reservations, his mission is crystal clear. He must extract the unobtainium at all costs, and when all other methods to try and get the Nav’i to abandon the area above the unobtainium fail, he feels compelled to use force. His hands are tied. There’s no stopping it.

To my mind, the nature of Parker Selfridge’s selfishness reveals one of the strongest indictments of the corporate culture today. Greed like Carter J Burke’s still exists, but to a wide extent is has been effectively institutionalized. Before greed was an act carried out by an individual, who made greedy decisions knowing that they were greedy (although denying that it was so to others). Now the Parker Selfridge’s of the world make such decisions, but say they have “no choice.” The very idea of being too greedy has completely vanished for the individual, such greediness is assumed to be the norm, not the exception. The inability to acknowledge this has been blurred by fealty to a corporate code. We no longer use corporations; corporations use us.

When we are dismayed as to how wall street bankers can sleep well while giving themselves millions of dollars in bonuses while bankrupting their country, it’s not difficult to see why. They were doing their job and taking their bonus; they were looking out for the needs of their companies. They were trying to be good employees. Wouldn’t you do the same?

posted by ferret at 1:36 am  

Saturday, February 20, 2010

False Start #36

I was walking home tonight thinking how wonderful it can be to be alone and utterly at peace. There always used to be some kind of pain sitting with me before, waiting inside my mind to grab at me, but now it’s gone. Gone into the darkness of this city. Leaving me alone, born anew.

I saw a ferret run across the road. I didn’t know that they lived in the big city. It was a wonder that that kind of animal could live here at all. I wondered if it was the only one.

Well, I guess there’s two of us…

posted by ferret at 1:22 am  

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010, The Year of the Tiger Comes to Shanghai

Tonight was toothy.

Chinese New Year

The year of the tiger

And the tiger had come out of the mountains

So that I could catch him.


I walked up to him

Breaking the cardinal rule

That you never walk up to a tiger

Unless you are mad or wise:

You either don’t know what you’re doing,

And your brains are already being biled by the beast

Or you know the tiger like footing on a paved street,

Sure of yourself, but prepared for the unexpected.


His mouth was upon me

But I saw that he wasn’t biting.

He just rested his teeth there,

As if he could strike at any second

But would be content to just play for now.


Would I be his master?

Or would he destroy me?

I thought on this, as


I walked home in the big, flakey snow

That turned to slush all about my feet

And stuck on my jacket like tiger’s teeth

Not biting, but resting, just resting there.

posted by ferret at 1:28 am  

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Words: Brown Study and Tulle

Brown Study


posted by ferret at 1:42 am  

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kissing and Telling at A Mile High

I sat in my seat on an airplane, hunched over my tray, writing a poem about you:

You and I made love

In an airliner bathroom

when a giant gust of wind suddenly blew through the stratosphere, knocking the airplane from side to side, causing the pilot to engage in a desperate struggle to right the giant, floating piece of metal, listing like a boat in the swell of a coming storm. I knew it was you coming to scold me. You are a tempestuous lover, for you are the tempest itself. So out of honor and self-preservation,  I put my pen down and grit my teeth for the rest of the flight, hoping that this sudden act of reticence would appease you.

But now I’m on solid ground, and I don’t fear you as much. So I’ll play the braggart, and tell everyone about my conquest:

I made love to the wind in an airliner bathroom.

It was unexpected, I assure you. She blew in quickly through the toilet as I flushed it, materializing before me in a fog, a woman of ineffable proportion, her breasts perked as if shaped by weft of a powerful tornado, areolas wide as the vault of the sky, her skin as light as the lazy clouds on a beautiful summer day, her dark hair fluttering about like snowflakes falling towards the earth, her irises the pale gray of rainclouds, swirling towards the pupils like the eye of great hurricane. She breathed softly in my ear, warm and calm like the zephyr, while I took her in my arms. During the act itself, I swear I felt lighting bolts flow from inside of her throughout my body. Afterward, I trembled, my knees rattling as if possessed by some loud thunder.

It’s been on my mind for sometime now, and I’m glad to get it off my chest. I have a feeling she’ll forgive me because most people will undoubtedly think that this story is just a bunch of hot air.

posted by ferret at 8:55 pm  

Monday, February 8, 2010

False Start #35

What do I owe myself? I’ve come to the realization that I don’t owe anybody anything. What? Am I not somebody, too?

posted by ferret at 9:37 pm  

Saturday, February 6, 2010

False Start #34

I can imagine that walruses find their tusks very useful, but they appear to me to be nothing but rather useless appendages for asserting a needless dominance, something that one ridicules. I mean look at them, huddling together on an outcrop, stewing in their own feces. You’ve got big teeth, buddy. Good luck.

Of course, they probably look at our overdeveloped brains with similar derision – that is if their tusks don’t get in the way of their thought process.

Yeah, buddy. I’m talking to you.

posted by ferret at 6:52 pm  

Friday, February 5, 2010

New Words: Buttinsky and Flight



posted by ferret at 12:03 pm  

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